Eighty-one-year-old retired Col. Bob Morgan turned the pilot's yoke of the B-17 Flying Fortress, banking the bomber he was flying over the golden hills of Western Maryland. Minutes later, onlookers below were treated to the unlikely sight of an olive-colored World War II bomber bristling with machine guns buzzing the landing strip at Frederick Municipal Airport.
Morgan survived 25 bombing missions into Nazi-held Europe as the commander of the famed B-17 Memphis Belle, an achievement that earned him nationwide recognition during the war. The mission this time was to bring a little bit of World War II history to schoolchildren.
"I don't find they get it in school," said Morgan, a soft-spoken North Carolinian wearing a leather bomber jacket bearing the curvaceous image of the plane's namesake. "They skip over World War II like it was an afternoon ballgame."
As the century ends, many veterans are dismayed by what they see as widespread and growing ignorance about World War II, and are concerned that holidays such as Veterans Day, which is being observed Thursday, have become little more than a day off from school or an interruption in the mail. "We've pretty much found out that most kids don't have the faintest idea of what went on during World War II," said Byron Schlag, a 79-year-old Frederick resident and war veteran who organized the visit.
The level of knowledge among many high school students about World War II is abysmal, historians say. "If you gave any given group of high school seniors a quiz, they'd be hard pressed to put Germany and Japan on one side, and America and Britain on the other," said Charles Shrader, executive director for the Society for Military History. "The level of ignorance is pretty high."
Nearly 60 percent of eighth-graders could not associate the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima with World War II even though it was a multiple-choice test, according to the results of a nationwide history report card sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education released in 1996.
Pentagon officials who work with educators say the study of World War II often suffers because it comes late in the school year and is not given much emphasis. "There is not much in the curriculum that refers to World War II or the Korean War," said Lt. Col. Roger King, who heads the Pentagon's committee commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Korean conflict and was involved with similar efforts for World War II. "We've found that most history teachers are spending a day on World War II. It's really kind of sad, because it's the pivotal event of the century. It's fallen off the education scope."
Educators acknowledge that history instruction needs to improve. In July, the Maryland State Board of Education approved standards of learning that, among other items, will require graduating high school students to demonstrate understanding of "the cause, course and consequences of World War II."
Virginia and the District established similar standards in 1997. But in the most recent testing last spring in Virginia, only 45 percent of high school students passed the history exam, a score significantly lower than those in the other three areas tested: English, science and math.
The efforts by veterans groups to fill in some of the gaps may help, educators said. "I think there is a vast ignorance out there, and these types of efforts can be very beneficial," said Robert Alison, a historian with Suffolk University in Boston.
The visit by Morgan and two restored World War II bombers to Frederick during a recent autumn weekend was aimed at school groups and attracted hundreds of people who toured the planes and spoke with combat veterans who flew them.
Schlag, president of the National Capital Chapter of the 8th Air Force Historical Society, spent weeks organizing the Frederick event for a simple reason. The 8th Air Force, which launched thousands of bombing missions into Nazi-held Europe from bases in England, suffered more than 26,000 men killed in action, and some of them were his friends.
In the spring of 1945, Schlag was the tail gunner on a B-17 sent with a nine-man crew on a bombing raid to a rail yard in the Rhineland. After dropping its bombs, the plane was suddenly split in half when it was hit from above by another B-17 that had lost a wing to enemy fire. Schlag was knocked unconscious but awoke in time to parachute from the severed tail as it fell to the ground. He was captured by German soldiers and nearly executed before being liberated by the advancing American army.
"I left my crew over there," Schlag said. "They were all killed, except for one other guy. That's probably the thing that means the most to all of us who made it back. We're doing it out of respect for them. If they died, and no one remembers it, it seems like it would be in vain."
Last year, Schlag and other area 8th Air Force veterans decided to do something to keep the memories of their comrades alive. Borrowing on similar efforts by other veterans organizations, they arranged for the Collings Foundation, a nonprofit educational group that supports "living history" events across the country, to bring several World War II aircraft it operates to Frederick. The event was successful enough that they decided to try it again this year.
"It opens up World War II to them," Schlag said. "They're not getting it in the schools. The hands-on approach helps them retain it."
It seemed to succeed with 11-year-old Mario Diaz, a sixth-grader at Thomas Johnson Middle School in Frederick County who acknowledged knowing little about the war. "I'd like to learn more about it," Mario said after meeting Morgan and touring the B-17.
Meeting the veterans offered students a chance to get a World War II perspective not offered in class, said teacher Linda Hoover, who brought her eighth-grade history class from Country Day School in Charles Town, W.Va.
Morgan, who was made famous by a wartime documentary about the Memphis Belle, quickly gained the attention of the eighth-graders when he noted that more than 80 percent of the crews in his bomber group were lost during the first three months he was flying missions. "I'm sure you kids can figure out the odds weren't very good that any of us were going to make it home," he said.
In a conference room by the airport, Morgan showed the children an excerpt from the documentary, and then contrasted it with a clip from the 1990 Hollywood movie "Memphis Belle," which featured actor Matthew Modine in the role of Morgan. The movie "has very little relationship to reality," Morgan said.
"They glamorized the crew," he told the rapt students. "There was nothing glamorous about being in a bomber crew. And the losses were terrible."
Other veterans participating in the event had a similar message. "It's not a matter of glorifying war," said Arlington resident Jim Gordon, whose P-51 Mustang fighter went down over France on D-Day. "It's nothing but a stinking hell. I rotted in a prison camp long enough to know that."
Hearing these stories serves a purpose, said Maj. Jeff Snell, sent by the Pentagon to offer a modern perspective on the Air Force. "War has become such a sanitized thing compared to what these guys went through," said Snell, a fighter pilot who flew in the Gulf War. "We didn't lose anybody in Kosovo. The public doesn't realize that war is sacrifice. It always has the potential to be that way again."
CAPTION: Col. Bob Morgan, right, who flew the famed Memphis Belle during World War II, jokes with fellow former bomber Bob Beatson.
CAPTION: In Westminster, Col. Bob Morgan, left, walks near a bomber with Bob Beatson. Morgan and other veterans are eager to teach about the war.